Among the films I’ve seen, one of the worst that I absolutely love is August Rush. All of the characters are woefully one-dimensional, the story is simple and schmaltzy, and it features maybe one or two solid performances amid unnoteworthy ones. A number of obvious “coincidences” arise as the narrative draws to a close, ultimately culminating in an ending everyone can see coming a mile away. And these are all problems I can reiterate verbatim when describing Ready Player One: one-dimensional characters, simple story, etc. However, the reason I love both films isn’t logic or structure, but feel. Despite flaws, these films offer a visceral quality that resonates on some level with the soul and can’t quite be captured in words. The empathic quality of the films outweighs their shortcomings and makes them not only watchable, but positively enjoyable.
Ready Player One’s story is simple. In the near future, a man named James Halliday created “The Oasis,” a massive virtual gamespace where the only limit is your imagination. All of society functions within The Oasis and everyone seems to be attached to it. Before dying, Halliday left behind an easter egg in the game: three hidden challenges that reward the player with a set of keys, so that the winner receives Halliday’s shares in the company and complete control of The Oasis, and therefore, basically, the world. The film follows Wade Watts, aka “Parzival,” who’s attempting to win to better his own lackluster living conditions, and also to stop megacorporation “IOI” from winning and turning The Oasis into...still The Oasis, but with 80% more ads. Good guy is good because he’s got it hard and he’s fighting for the right to have fun and be yourself or something, bad guy is bad because he’s a businessman so obviously he’s a complete tool who doesn’t get pop culture and just cares about the money that he honestly doesn’t need: this isn’t complicated stuff, folks. We live in an age where, with the details I’ve just given, you should be able to figure out the entire movie.
But this is also a Spielberg film, directed by a man who’s crafted a career from pushing the limits of simple. Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. – these pillars of film history are simple ideas stretched to the limit, and while I’m not willing to call Ready Player One a remarkable touchstone, it still has that Spielberg magic. While the characters and story lack intrigue, they make it up in heart. Spielberg has always excelled at applying a natural aura of wonder to his work, and for a locale as bizarre and infinite as The Oasis, his touch is just what the film needs to be fluid and fun.
Also, let’s be clear: I’m not getting swept up in nostalgia. Yes, Ready Player One is constructed wholesale from nostalgia, and in the hands of another director this reification might yield “weaponized intertextuality: the film.” Instead, Spielberg distills the emotional core into a more crucial form: the art of play. Halliday’s tests are framed and constructed to highlight his philosophies, values and life lessons, all framed around an overarching focus on “the experience over the result.” The structure of the story is one in which people throw everything they have against a challenge ultimately designed to be more about playing the game than winning the challenge itself – and is presented in a way that makes the whole thing wonderful to watch. The film isn’t groundbreaking, but it does reinforce my love of games, films and culture, leaving me a less cynical person overall. There’s real value in that.
I don’t consider Ready Player One a “strong” film, but like August Rush it’s masterfully nurtured and made me smile. Go watch it, and try not to overthink it too much. This is more about joy than accomplishment.
But it feels like a 4/5